Australian Sean Turnell, economic adviser to Myanmar’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in prison since the military coup of February 2021, awaiting trial for the supposed crime of stealing state secrets.
This week a puppet court sentenced him to three years in prison, alongside Suu Kyi, who has already been sentenced to 20 years’ jail in other sham court cases.
Both pled not guilty to the charge of holding confidential secret government documents. Turnell has said all he had were economic papers needed for his work as a technical economic adviser to Myanmar’s government.
The trial was held behind closed doors. Australian consular officials attempted to attend but were denied access. Foreign affairs minister Penny Minister has issued a statement rejecting the legitimacy of the trial and calling for Turnell’s release.
The Myanmar regime has agreed to take into account the 20 months Turnell has already spent in prison. So he is due for release in January 2024.
It is possible, however, that he could be released and deported early. There is a precedent for this. In November 2011 US journalist Danny Fenster was sentenced to 11 years with hard labour but released just a day later. Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and US ambassador to the UN, was appointed as a special envoy and negotiated his release.
How Turnell ended up in Myanmar
I’ve known Turnell as a family friend and colleague for many years.
A working-class kid from Macquarie Fields in south-west Sydney, he attended Macquarie University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, then a PhD and ended up as an associate professor.
Turnell went on to become an expert on the links between banking systems and economic performance in developing countries, particularly in South-East Asia.
He wrote some important academic articles on Myanmar discussing how, after decades of isolation under military rule, economic reforms could rebuild the nation’s agriculture and tourism sector.
His work gained the attention of Aung San Suu Kyi. They first met in the early 1990s, before Suu Kyi was sentenced to house arrest. After her release in 2010 the junta (temporarily) allowed democratic reforms and she invited him to become her economic adviser.
Turnell’s economic competence was widely admired. He became a sort of John Maynard Keynes of Myanmar. I witnessed this in 2017 when he gave the keynote address to an Australian Myanmar Institute conference in Yangon. It was a full house with an enthusiastic audience.
On February 1 2021 the miltary staged its coup. Turnell was arrested, along with other prominent advisers to Suu Kyi, a few days later.
Is it time for sanctions?
It has been suggested that Australia should appoint a special envoy help get Turnell released, just as the US did for Danny Fenster. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd might be suitable given his good relationships in Asia.
In the meantime it is pleasing to see that foreign minister Penny Wong has been more vigorous than her predecessor Marise Payne in advocating for Turnell, and Myanmar generally.
Last month Wong raised the issue of Myanmar at a meeting of ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar is one of ASEAN’s ten members, and its neighbours have been divided over the forum’s longstanding policy of “constructive engagement” versus taking a harder line.
But will the Australian government back up its rhetorical support for Myanmar’s democracy movement with the type of sanctions the movement wants from the international community?
Observers have suggested Turnell’s fate may have influenced the former government’s lack of enthusiasm for sanctions.
That still appears the case, with Wong adopting a similar stance to Payne in saying only that sanctions against members of Myanmar’s military regime “are under active consideration”.
But there’s a paradox at play here. If Turnell’s predicament really is behind the government’s reluctance to impose sanctions, that gives Myanmar’s junta an incentive to keep Turnell locked up.